This article was first published in the November 2004 ABR E-Newsletter.
During the past half century, many in the academic world have come to discount the historical basis for most of the Bible's early characters. The Creation story with Adam and Eve was just a myth. There was no worldwide Flood, Noah or an Ark. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were not historical figures. Neither Joseph nor the Israelites sojourned in Egypt. There was no Moses or Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites did not wander in the wilderness, and Joshua did not lead a conquest of Canaan. You could pretty much throw away the first six books of your Bible and not really miss a thing!
But it was generally accepted that by the first millennium BC, beginning with the kingdom of David, you were on solid historical footing. Yet, in the mid-1990's, a significant academic debate developed over the historical accuracy of the Bible's description of the United Monarchy under David and Solomon. Covering most of the tenth century BC (roughly from 1000 to 925 BC; known to archaeologists as Iron Age IIA), the topic was frequently discussed in scholarly journals and the popular press. This challenge to the historicity of the United Monarchy culminated in the 2000 publication of The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman (New York: Free Press). The book's message was widely acclaimed as archaeology's admission to the world that there really was no archaeological evidence to support the Bible story.
Some readers might be surprised to know just how antagonistic to the Bible some scholars are today. One group of historians known as "Biblical Minimalists" (also called the "European School," the "Copenhagen School" or even "Deconstructionists") hold that the Old Testament was written during the Persian period (fourth century BC) or even the Hellenistic period (third and second centuries BC). These scholars include Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas Thompson, John Van Seters and Philip R. Davies. Their views are extreme and even difficult to know how to address. For example, Lemche challenged the authenticity of both the Tel Dan ("House of David") and the Ekron ("Padi king of Ekron") inscriptions, insinuating that they might have been faked by the excavators (see Shanks 1997: 36-38).
Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, head of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University and co-director of the ongoing excavation at Megiddo, does not consider himself a "Minimalist." He believes the core historical books of the Old Testament were written in the late seventh century BC (the days of king Josiah) as political propaganda to support his reforms (see Shanks 2002). Thus for Finkelstein, a Biblical writer was not actually describing the period about which he was writing, instead he was inventing history about that period (Shanks 2002: 43). With these views, Finkelstein sees himself as being in the middle - between the Biblical Minimalists and Biblical Maximalists (who support the basic history of the Old Testament).
But that isn't all. Finkelstein also developed a new chronology for archaeological data that suggests there is no archaeological evidence for the United Monarchy under David and Solomon. He calls his revision the "low chronology," in opposition to the traditional or "high chronology." With Finkelstein's "low chronology," the poor material culture of the eleventh century BC (the period of the Judges) lowers and becomes the period of David and Solomon. The better architecture, ceramics and other artifacts of the tenth century BC (the period of David and Solomon) Finkelstein lowers to the ninth century BC (the days of Omri, Ahab and Jehu).
The good news is that Finkelstein has publicly declared that he does not deny the existence of either David or Solomon (Shanks 2002: 45). The bad news is that he does not believe they were who the Bible described them to be. As an archaeologist, Finkelstein sees no evidence for David's capital in Jerusalem and no evidence for his kingdom anywhere else in the region. Neither is there a capital city or temple in Jerusalem during Solomon's time, nor is there archaeological evidence of Solomon's reign elsewhere - especially at Megiddo, Hazor and Gezer (I Kgs 9:15).
You probably know that there is no "smoking gun" evidence for David, Solomon or their kingdoms as described in the Bible. Such direct evidence might include architectural evidence of Solomon's Temple, royal inscriptions from either king, or contemporary references to either from anywhere in the Levant, Egypt or Mesopotamia. Yet the archaeological data and historical material is so strong and compelling that I hesitate to classify it as simply indirect evidence.
To keep the discussion on an appropriate course, as an archaeologist dealing with archaeological material, the issue is not whether David or Solomon are associated with the archaeological evidence. At issue is whether there is evidence of an Israelite kingdom and important city at Jerusalem in the tenth century BC. If archaeology demonstrates evidence of centralization and authority in the region at that time, then it is reasonable to accept it might be evidence of the United Monarchy of David and Solomon.
Just for the record, the existence of David as a person, king and head of a dynasty was mentioned in an inscription from Tel Dan (Shanks 1994), written about 100 years after his death. King David was probably mentioned again in the Mesha Stela (the Moabite Stone; Lemaire 1994) and possibly in Shishak's relief at Karnak (Shanks 1999).
According to the excavators of Hazor (Amnon Ben-Tor 1999) and Gezer (William Dever; Shanks 1997), there is solid evidence from the days of Solomon's kingdom. And most archaeologists still believe there is evidence from the same period at Megiddo, in spite of what Megiddo excavator Finkelstein believes (Harrison 2003; Mazar 2003). According to Jane Cahill (2004), the archaeologist finishing the 1980's City of David dig report, tenth century Jerusalem was fortified, served by two complex water-supply systems and was populated by a socially stratified society that constructed at least two new residential quarters - one inside and one outside the city walls.
Was there an important city at Jerusalem in the tenth century BC and was there evidence of an Israelite kingdom in the region at that time? Archaeology says "yes"! Was there a David who led a kingdom and founded a dynasty? Again archaeology says "yes"! Evidence will continue to pour in from new excavations and scholars will continue to debate the subject. And the historical reliability of the Biblical account will continue to stand up to any and all new facts.
1999 Excavating Hazor, Part 1: Solomon's City Rises from the Ashes. Biblical Archaeology Review 25.2: 26-37, 60.
2004 Jerusalem in David and Solomon's Time. Biblical Archaeology Review 30.6: 20-31, 62-63.
Finkelstein, Israel and Silberman, Neil
2000 The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York: Free Press.
Harrison, Timothy P.
2003 The Battleground: Who Destroyed Megiddo? Was it David or Shishak? Biblical Archaeology Review 29.6: 28-35, 60-62.
1994 "House of David" Restored in Moabite Inscription. Biblical Archaeology Review 20.3: 30-37.
2003 Does Amahai Mazar Agree with Finkelstein's "Low Chronology"? Biblical Archaeology Review 29.2: 60-61.
1994 "David" Found at Dan. Biblical Archaeology Review 20.2.
1997 Face to Face: Biblical Minimalists Meet Their Challengers. Biblical Archaeology Review 23.4: 26-42, 66-67.
1999 Has David Been Found in Egypt. Biblical Archaeology Review 25.1: 34-35.
2002 A "Centrist" at the Center of Controversy: BAR Interviews Israel Finkelstein. Biblical Archaeology Review 28.6: 38-49, 64-68.